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John Candy's Sugar Pop
Rita Kempley, Washington Post Staff Writer

"Uncle Buck," a John Hughes comedy on child-rearing, is the mild-mannered next-door neighbor of the recent release "Parenthood." Here's more proof that fathering is not only trendy, but also a barrel o' laughs that turns big babies into grown men.

Speaking of barrels, John Candy has the title role of Buck Russell, the kooky uncle forced to care for his two nieces and a nephew during a family crisis. A la "Three Men and a Baby," Uncle Buck will ultimately find that he loves children and wants to get married and move to the suburbs as soon as humanly possible, there nigh the Chemlawn to procreate happily ever after.

"Uncle Buck" essentially is a star vehicle without star power. Candy, great in tandem with Steve Martin in Hughes's "Planes, Trains and Automobiles," has yet to carry a picture by his lonesome. With his cineramic girth and cheery grin, he does fill up the screen with a hulking jolliness. But you keep thinking Pritikin ... Nutri-System ... Candy is more than sympathetic, and we're worried about him having a stand-up heart attack.

He's a congenial comedian, and one of his shortcomings is that we know he won't do or say anything to make us really uncomfortable, nothing kinky or radical, as a Murphy or a Dangerfield might. As Buck, he evolves from a slovenly single to a bachelor father, withstanding the trials of a high-tech kitchen and the sullen growing pains of the family's teenager (Jean Kelly in a promising movie debut as 15-year-old Tia). When the laundry center befuddles him, Buck dries his wash in the microwave while contending with the man-hungry divorcee next door. Hoo, boy.

Tia, who hates everybody but her steady, Bug (Jay Underwood), is his most pressing problem. Certain that Bug only wants one thing from Tia, he fights the high school Lothario for her honor. In "Parenthood," the boy marries his pregnant teenage wife. Here, he is gagged with gaffer's tape, stuffed in a trunk and beaten for staining Tia's honor. It's Uncle Vigilante.

The little kids -- 8-year-old Miles (Macaulay Culkin) and 6-year-old Maizy (Gaby Hoffman) -- are button-cute and immediate allies of Buck, who is lovable even when threatening Bug with a power drill. Then we see Buck, the kids and the dog nestled in Maizy's small bed -- a mother panda and her cubs couldn't be more endearing. He does look bearish when he dresses down Maizy's vice principal for calling her "a bad egg." Distracted by a large mole on the schoolmarm's chin, he announces, "Hello, I'm Buck Melanoma" in the movie's one truly hilarious scene. We are otherwise only mildly amused with Candy's antics, and in some ways more intrigued with the grousing Tia, a sulky, lovely girl who, like the middle-aged Buck, is feeling growing pains. Hughes, the master of young adult fiction, seems more engaged by the pimply menace of a teen clique in Zorro drag, haughty rebels who are automatically more interesting than the cotton candy people of the central story.

The pop cycle continues as one more filmmaker takes on the paterfamiliarization of 20th-century man. "Uncle Buck" is competent comedy, a bit simplistic, a bit stale, no gremlins, no gushiness, no surprises. A Hughes movie offers the kind of reliability you expect from major household appliances or a good set of radials.

Uncle Buck, at area theaters, is rated PG.